|From Church of St. Vigilius of Trent (detail)|
"I had not known that death had undone so many." So said Dante, early in his journey through the Inferno, as he watched the vast numbers of damned souls move slowly toward their final abode. He was not speaking of the horrible effects of the Black Death in Florence in 1348 - Dante died in 1321 - but the phrase certainly could be applied to that as well.
We don't know how many died in that awful summer, but modern estimates hover around the 60,000-70,000 range, reducing a population of 110,000-120,000 to around 50,000. Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, who was twelve years old that year, wrote in his chronicle that 94,000 people died between March and October.
It is hard to get one's mind wrapped around those numbers. More than half of the population, even by the more conservative estimates. Some say it was three out of five people - old, young, male, female, rich, poor. In this post I want to introduce you to a few of them, just a list of men (and one woman) whose names and histories we still know, and who ended their lives in that terrible epidemic during that terrible summer. Not all are Florentines, but all have connections with Tuscany.
|Illustration from Boccaccio's The Decameron|
Keep in mind that in the fifteen years before the plague hit, Florence had been through a devastating flood, a rebellion against a despot, a major bank failure affecting the city's major banking companies, and a failed harvest resulting in scarcity, soaring prices, and starvation. Misfortune was no stranger to the city on the Arno, but nothing could have prepared the citizens for the Black Death.
Giovanni Boccaccio's extraordinary collection of 100 short stories, The Decameron, begins with the premise that ten young people are leaving the city together to flee the plague. They will pass their days in the countryside amusing themselves with music, dancing, and storytelling. In the illustration above, you can see the young men and women preparing to leave, and in the background you can see bodies prepared for a mass burial. Boccaccio's introduction to The Decameron remains one of the most chilling eyewitness descriptions of the epidemic that has come down to us. It is difficult to read dispassionately even now, 665 years later, as he writes of wife abandoning husband, brother forsaking sister, and parents fleeing from their children, leaving their loved ones to die alone, all for fear of contamination.
Of the death toll, which he estimated at over 100,000, he has this to say:
Oh, how many great palaces, beautiful homes, and noble dwellings, once filled with families, gentlemen, and ladies, were now emptied, down to the last servant! How many notable families, vast domains, and famous fortunes remained without legitimate heir! How many valiant men, beautiful women, and charming young boys, who might have been pronounced very healthy by Galen, Hippocrates, and Aesculapius (not to mention lesser physicians), ate breakfast in the morning with their relatives, companions, and friends and then in the evening dined with their ancestors in the other world! (Translation by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella)
A quartet of artists who lost their lives in 1348 may be among the best-known of this list of 1348 decedents. Ambrogio Lorenzetti, his older brother Pietro Lorenzetti, and two of Pietro's followers (also both students of Giotto), Bernardo Daddi, and Maso di Banco all succumbed to the Black Death in that year, impoverishing Florence's vibrant artistic scene.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, born in Siena, was considered extremely original in his painting style. His work was innovative in that he experimented with perspective, approached physiognomy in a style we tend to associate with the Renaissance, and studied classical antiquity. The extraordinary fresco below, the Allegory of Good Government and Its Effects on Town and Country, may still be seen in Siena's Palazzo Pubblico. Ambrogio was about 58 when the plague took his life.
|Allegory of The Effects of Good Government, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena|
|Lower level, Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi|
|Image of the Madonna, Orsanmichele, Florence|
|Santa Croce, Florence|
The poet Petrarch was not a plague victim himself, but he lost two close friends and the woman he loved that summer.
|Tomb of Giovanni d'Andrea|
Petrarch's other friend, Giovanni d'Andrea, had an authentic Tuscan connection, for he was born near Florence. He was a legal scholar and a professor of canon law at Padua, Pisa, and Bologna. He was said to have been very short of stature, causing Pope Boniface VIII to believe he was kneeling, and to repeatedly ask him to rise, to the amusement of the cardinals present. He had two daughters, both of whom predeceased him: Novella, who was so skilled in canon law that she could teach her father's lectures in his absence (and so beautiful that she lectured from behind a curtain so she would not distract the students), and Bettina, herself a legal scholar and professor of canon law at Bologna. He died in his mid-seventies.
|Laura de Noves|
|Simon of Cascia and Rita of Cascia|
Simon frequently sought council from the Blessed Silvester of Valdiesieve, an illiterate monk in Florence, who had worked as a wool carder before entering the Benedictine Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli; once a monk, he served his brothers by working as a cook. Considered a deep thinker, Silvester was sought out by both scholars and monks for his wisdom. He was 70 in 1348.
|Saint Bernardo Tolomei|
Two of the victims tried to help plague sufferers, only to succumb themselves. Bernardo Tolomei, above, was canonized in 2009. Sienese by birth, Bernardo built up a reputation as a theologian and a student of both civil and canon law. He was an army man for a time, serving Rudolph I of Germany. He was once accused of heresy, but he successfully defended himself and went on to found a religious order. When the Black Death made its appearance in the area around Arezzo, Bernardo and his monks cared for the sick. In 1348 he returned to Siena, where it was believed that the holy monks would be spared from the danger, but Bernardo was among the first to contract the illness and to die. The painting below shows Bernardo caring for victims. He was in his mid-70s when he died.
|The Blessed Bernardo Tolomei ministering to plague victims|
Another man who tried to help was the physician Gentile da Foligno, a professor of medicine who taught at the universities in Bologna and in Siena. He is said to be the first European physician to perform a dissection on a human cadaver. He was something of a specialist in diseases involving the urinary tract.
|Bust of Gentile da Foligno|
Gentile da Foligno wrote a popular treatise on the Black Death, in which he recommended the drug theriac as a preventative, but the plague took him anyway. (Theriac, a concoction first prescribed by the ancient Greeks, involved many months of preparation and no fewer than 64 ingredients, including the flesh of a poisonous snake.)
|Medieval apothecary selling theriac|
As I said above, Dante had been dead for 27 years when the Black Death struck Florence, but it did take the life of one of his sons. Iacopo Alighieri may have followed his father into exile and been with him in Ravenna at the end of the great poet's life. He is known for his commentary on his father's work The Inferno, the first of three parts of the Divine Comedy. Iacopo did not manage to regain possession of his exiled father's property in Florence until 1343, but he was only able to enjoy it for five years until the plague carried him off. He was probably about 59 at the time.
Another literary figure who died in the epidemic was Ugolino Brunforte. A member of the Franciscan order of Friars Minor and a member of a noble family of French origin, Ugolino is thought to have written the earliest version of the Fioretti, or Little Flowers of Saint Francis. This collection of tales about Francis's life comes down to us only in later versions. Ugolino was made a bishop under Pope Celestine V (the first pope to resign), but Celestine's successor Boniface VIII did not hold him in such high regard and annulled the appointment. Ugolino was quite elderly, probably in his mid-80s, when he died. Looking at my notes, I can't figure out what I thought the Tuscan connection was here, but Umbria isn't all that far away, so here he is.
|St. Francis with scenes from his life|
Andrea Pisano, the sculptor who created the panels on the south door of Florence's Baptistery, worked in Pisa as well as in Florence. He succeeded Giotto as Master of the Works of Florence Cathedral. In a typical web of relationships, Andrea's chief pupil was Andrea Orcagna, who designed the magnificent tabernacle in which Bernardo Daddi's Orsanmichele Madonna is housed (see picture above).
Visitors to Florence tend to cluster around the magnificent doors with the panels sculpted by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the panels Michelangelo referred to as "the gates of Paradise." Some few of us stubborn contrarians can be found around by the south doors, however, admiring Andrea's work as well.
|South doors, Baptistery, Florence|
Near to my heart, as a student of Florentine history, is the chronicler Giovanni Villani, who, among other acts of public service to his city, was the superintendent in charge of Andrea Pisano's work on the doors (above). Villani served Florence as ambassador, prior, head of the mint, inspector of the building of new city walls, and magistrate in charge of provisions during a famine. His great work of history, the Nuova Cronica, is indispensable for anyone wishing to study medieval Florence.
|Giovanni Villani, loggia of Mercato Nuovo, Florence|
Villani wrote of the plague:
The priest who confessed the sick and those who nursed them so generally caught the infection that the victims were abandoned and deprived of confession, sacrament, medicine, and nursing... And many lands and cities were made desolate. And this plague lasted until _____.
He intended to fill in the ending date later, but poignantly, his own end came first. His brother Matteo (who eventually died of a later wave of plague) and then his nepher Filippo, Matteo's son, continued his great historical work.
These are some of the plague victims whose names and careers are still known to us today. We even have the exact dates of death of three of them: Ambrogio Lorenzetti on June 9, Gentile da Foligno on June 18, and Giovanni Colonna on July 3 in that brutal summer. But let us end our list of well-known plague victims by sparing a moment's thought for the many who died alone and frightened, and whose names are now long forgotten.
|Maso di Banco relief (Extreme Unction) for Giotto's campanile|
Images in this post are in the public domain, with these exceptions: Skeletons at top are a detail of a photo licensed to Mattis via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Unported 3.0 license, Wikimedia Commons; the picture of the Blessed Bernardo Tolomei ministering to plague victims is licensed to Noel Olivier via the same type of license, same source; and the following photos are similarly licensed to Sailko: tomb of Giovanni d'Andrea, Maso di Banco relief of Extreme Unction; statue of Giovanni Villani in Florence's Mercato Nuovo; and the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi.